When traveling through the San Luis Valley, the visual beauty of the surrounding mountains can be a stark contrast to the reality for many residents. The geography and its vastness create barriers to accessing healthy food, such as during the summer when school breakfast and lunch are not available for thousands of children in rural communities.
Summer meals are an important resource for many kids and teens in rural, suburban and urban communities over summer break. The Summer Food Service Program helps fill the nutritional gap, with support from the USDA, Colorado Department of Education, Hunger Free Colorado and hundreds of organizations across Colorado. Thanks to the statewide collaboration nearly 545 community sites offered nutritious meals for no cost to all children, 18 years and younger, at safe and fun locations this summer. More than 1.5 million meals were served in 2014, nearly double compared to five years prior, and that number is expected to climb when the 2015 meal count is finalized this fall.
While substantial progress has been made, far too many children still do not participate in the program. Rural communities, in particular, encounter obstacles that don’t face its urban counterparts. For example, there fewer community organizations and stakeholders that can support implementing a successful program that provides meals and enrichment activities. Children in rural Colorado are far less likely to live within walking distance of a summer meal site or have a safe route to use by foot or bike. Also, transportation can be a challenge if the cost of gas is more than the cost of providing the meal, or if a family member works or is sick.
La Puente, a nonprofit organization that provides food and shelter for community members in crisis, is located in Alamosa, the largest city in the valley. Their team members witness these challenges daily.
“Here in the San Luis Valley, which is 8,000 square miles, there are no public transportation routes or even a ‘park and ride’ option,” said Bethany Howell, Community Education Coordinator for La Puente Home. “Those without cars are dependent on friends, relatives, or neighbors to help them access food. If they can’t find someone willing or able to give them a ride at the time they need one to reach [a summer meal site], they will be out of luck until the next time.”
A proven solution, particularly for rural Colorado, is the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) for Children. Through this program, funds would be loaded on to EBT cards, so families could purchase groceries and make their own meals. A pilot project in 10 states, not including Colorado, demonstrated great success in overcoming barriers to the Summer Food Service Program. It not only reduced child hunger during the summer months but also increased consumption of healthy foods.
“Having the ability to cook at home is much more flexible for those who are dependent on others for their transportation to summer breakfast and lunch programs,” said Howell.
Expanding the Summer EBT for Children pilot would provide Colorado children in all zip codes with a fair chance to reach their potential. All kids need proper nutrition for healthy development and academic achievement.
“Reducing barriers to summer meals is one of our top priorities for Child Nutrition Reauthorization,” shared Kathy Underhill, executive director for Hunger Free Colorado. “It’s important for all kids—no matter where they live—to have access to the fuel needed to thrive in and out of school.”
This September Congress will have the opportunity to invest in the health of Colorado kids and a better future for all Coloradans by supporting a strong Child Nutrition Reauthorization. The current national law, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, funds all child nutrition programs, including summer meals, is set to expire on September 30, 2015.
Want to take action? Join the Hunger Free Colorado action network. Then, contact your Members of Congress via the easy-to-use online system, and ask them to support strengthening programs that are part of Child Nutrition Reauthorization.